Dear White People
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Neil LaBute's new film doesn't take place in Los Angeles or New York or . . . anywhere in particular. There is not a single outdoor establishing shot anywhere in it. "Yeah," LaBute says. "There's no shot of the apartment building we're about to go into, in case you've forgotten what it looks like."
The movie is entirely filmed in interiors: homes, restaurants, clubs, a grocery store.
And the characters don't have names. Or at least they never refer to each other by name. "That's true to life," LaBute says. "When you're talking to someone, you don't use their name. We've been talking for an hour and I have never used your name and you have never used mine."
We are having the kind of conversation you might find in a film such as LaBute's "Your Friends and Neighbors," which opens Friday. Or in his first film, "In the Company of Men," which was one of the best films of 1997. We are seated in a hotel cafe . . . somewhere . . . hunched together over the table, speaking urgently, rapidly.
A little earlier, I'd been talking with Jason Patric, one of the stars of the film, who also co-produced it. He observed that the film contains no insert shots. Those are the extreme closeups of such details as hands or spoons or eyes. By not pulling back and not pushing in, LaBute creates a dispassionate, analytical visual style: He is regarding these characters from a certain distance. He wants us to think about what they say and how they behave, and what their values are.
"If you set the movie in Los Angeles," Patric told me, "audiences would say, yeah, look at the way they live in L.A. Or put it in New York: Wow, those New Yorkers."
Instead, these are people who live in settings, not a city. Settings for themselves. Their living rooms. Their clubs. Their beds. The movie is about six characters, played by Amy Brenneman, Aaron Eckhart, Catherine Keener, Nastassja Kinski, Patric and Ben Stiller, who sleep with each other in various combinations but are basically sleeping with themselves. "Nobody satisfies me like I do," one of the characters says early in the film.
LaBute observes: "There's a little mantra throughout the film, of people saying, 'Is it me?' It's often used, but never for introspection. When you have a character like Aaron's who's still saying, 'Is it me?' at the end, when he's lying alone in bed, you realize there are people who will just absolutely look anywhere but at themselves to find the cause of the problem."
The movie almost studiously avoids telling us exactly what any of these people do for a living - except for Kinski, who is an "artist's assistant," a job description that inspires some quiet irony. (Patric's character has been called a gynecologist in some reviews, but LaBute says that's just speculation.) The characters don't really seem to care about their work, except to the degree that it gives them money, status and toys. They're like kids waiting for the school bell, so their hedonistic pleasures can begin. They're the kind of people one imagines, no doubt unfairly, that cigar magazines are published for.
"They're into control of their lives," LaBute said. "The masters and mistresses of their universes. Jason's character, who seems like a selfish monster, is simply saying, 'This is my life. That's a fact. People get in the way. I'm sorry but I have to right that wrong.' "
Among the people who get in their ways are their sex partners, and one of the movie's dialogue masterstrokes is when the Catherine Keener character, after possibly her first experience of lesbianism, is asked "what did you like the best?" and replies, "I liked the silence best." She hates it when her lovers insist on talking during sex. She's not interested in what they're thinking. She wants them to shut up and take care of business.
LaBute is one of the most distinctive, hard-edged, challenging new directors to emerge in the decade. He is not a showman or a flashy stylist (although his films are built on a deep understanding of style), but a moralist, a critic, a director obsessed with the way we live now. He sees a sort of Post-Everything Period, in which the characters spin down into material comforts and moneymaking concerns, have no curiosity about culture or society, and devote themselves with the single-mindedness of medieval monks to the contemplation of consumer goods. Among the things they consume are each other.
LaBute is a substantial, bearded man in his 30s who made his first film, "In the Company of Men," in Fort Wayne, Ind., while teaching at local colleges. He'd already written both that script and "Your Friends and Neighbors," but decided to start with the smaller film and its three major characters, "to avoid that equation where people look at your film and say what a shame it was you didn't have this or that. You look at that film, and it has everything it needs."
The first film was financed in bits and pieces, including $10,000 traffic accident settlements that were invested by a couple of his friends. The new film, more expensive and with bigger names, is recognizably from the same director, who listens to how people talk with the same sort of ironic attention as David Mamet. His people are cold, but not monsters: "This is just a couple of weeks. They can change."
Because his films are often described as merciless and uncompromising, he makes a point of saying "Your Friends and Neighbors" is also, in a way, a comedy.
"We didn't work to offend the audience. You make a movie for people to see. But to provoke them, to engage them in some way - that's the best thing I think you can do. The worst criticism in the world doesn't come from a movie critic. It's an audience member who uses you as two hours of air conditioning because you fit the time slot before the pool opens. And then never tells another person about what you've done. That is the most damning thing, that your sphere of influence lasts only until they get to their car door."
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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